Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sometimes I give a damn

55%How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

Sometimes I just want to walk away.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The sad state of dental coverage

I've long felt that America needs a universal health insurance program. Twenty years of dealing with the medical system as part of my wife's health crises has only convinced me of this further. Yet one aspect of health care that seldom comes up in these discussions is dental insurance. Katrina vanden Heuvel writes about the dismal dental care options many Americans face in a recent Alternet article.

Currently, Medicaid only covers pulling teeth to treat infections -- not root canals or dentures -- which can certainly dim the job prospects for someone trying to earn a living in our economy.

"Try finding work when you're in your 30s or 40s and you're missing front teeth," Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School in Berea, Kentucky told the
(New York) Times.

According to Maryland Senator Ben Cardin's staff, dental decay is now the most common chronic childhood disease in the US, affecting twenty percent of children aged 2 to 4, fifty percent of those aged 6 to 8, and nearly sixty percent of fifteen year olds. It is five times more common than asthma among school age children, and nearly 40 percent of African-American children have untreated tooth decay in their adult teeth. Improper hygiene can increase a child's adult risk of having low birth-weight babies, developing heart disease, or suffering a stroke. Eighty percent of all dental problems are found in just 25 percent of children, primarily those from lower-income families.

Children of lower-income families, already facing poorer educational and work opportunities, have a further handicap when looking for work. Having to deal with potential employers is tough enough for them without worrying about bad breath and missing teeth.

This comment on the article struck me:

I am a U.S. Army dentist, and I am shocked by the dental health of the new recruits who come to my office.

I am in charge of the initial dental processing of new recruits, and the dental conditions of these kids is truly appalling. I haven't seen dental health as bad as this since my stint as a dentist in the Peace Corps. As bad as anything I saw in the third world. It's a dentist's nightmare: impacted wisdom teeth, advanced pyorrhea, untreated abcesses.. you name it.

Most of them are from the trailer parks and innercities. They are clearly embarassed by their dental conditions. For most of them, I am the first real dental care they have had in their lives. They tell some sad stories: about not having the money to afford a dentist. About pulling teeth with pliers and treating toothache with salt water. One young man told me he shoplifted penicillin from the vet supply store in his town to treat a tooth infection.

Many of these young men (and women) are well on their way to being toothless by the age of 30.

Even if you have dental insurance, it often doesn't cover much. My dental plan carries a $75 deductible for each of us per year, covers 80% on basic benefits like tooth pulling, and 50% on major benefits such as bridges and dentures. There is a $1000 limit on coverage per person per year, which you can go through in a hurry, as plates and dentures can run to several thousand dollars. My dentist's office assures me that I have one of the best plans available in the area.

Infections from dental decay can lead to a whole slew of major health problems. America needs a health care insurance system that benefits all Americans, not just those who have the money to afford it or those fortunate to have good benefits at work. Comprehensive dental care is a key element of health that too often gets overlooked.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Album project: Toys In The Attic

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic (1975): Everybody can recall certain music from their high-school days that was essential for cruising the local strip. In my hometown, summer weekends in the mid-70's were filled with the music of acts like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent, Foghat, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive blasting from car windows up and down West Main Street. Aerosmith joined the cruising pantheon around my sophomore year. Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and company had been terrorizing the East Coast for several years, but Toys In The Attic was their real breakthrough in the Midwest, along with the re-release of their "Dream On" single which put them in the Top 10 for the first time and got a lot of us kids interested in their earlier work. I got my drivers license in the summer of 1976, and installed one of those Mickey Mouse underdash 8-track players in my first car, a '66 Impala Dad bought dirt-cheap from one of the neighbors. Toys In The Attic was the first 8-track I bought, and with music blasting, I set off to join the gang congregated in the parking lots of Steak 'N' Shake, Pasquale's Pizza, Jones Boys Arcade, and other West Main hangouts.

By this time Aerosmith had crafted a sound that drew heavily on classic British hard rock, most notably the Rolling Stones and The Who. Lead singer Steven Tyler often was compared to Mick Jagger both for looks and vocal style; he frequently sang suggestive lyrics that skirted the edge of tastefulness. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford's dual-guitar attack often equaled that of the best British guitar heroes, and they were supported ably by Tom Hamilton on bass and Joey Kramer on drums. Toys In The Attic, along with their followup disc Rocks, is the band's high-water mark. Although many fans would argue for Rocks as the better of the two, I've always thought Toys to be more consistent. Both are far preferable to the multi-platinum mush they released in the late 80's and early 90's in the wake of their new-found sobriety.

The album opens with the manic riffing of the title track, which sets up a vague theme of mental instability that continues with the next track, the mid-tempo "Uncle Salty". "Adam's Apple" welds another killer riff to Tyler's take on original sin. The funky "Walk This Way" would provide Aerosmith their second Top Ten hit. "Big Ten Inch Record", an old blues recorded by Bull Moose Jackson, is built around a series of double-entendres suggestive of Tyler's "big ten-inch".

Aerosmith never got any better than "Sweet Emotion", which kicks off side two on the old vinyl. Tom Hamilton sets it up with a bass figure that provides the song's foundation, joined by Joe Perry doing some tricks with his guitar talk box before the song kicks in. The song chronicles living and loving on the road; Perry's wife was supposedly the inspiration for some of the lyrics. The Perry solo that closes the track over the years has developed into a showcase for some of his hottest playing in concert.

"No More No More" is another road song; another sledgehammer riff drives home the point that the rock 'n' roll life is driving Tyler to the brink of insanity. "Round And Round" is a swirl of psychotic metal that suggests that the whole band may be on the verge of cracking, but they pull it all together to bring the disc to a close with "You See Me Crying", a heavily-orchestrated power ballad that provides a fitting end to the proceedings.

Practically all of Aerosmith's music that's worth a damn is found on their first four albums. By the time of Draw The Line in 1978, the booze and coke was already eating away at their talent, and the reformed, sobered-up Aerosmith of the late 80's and 90's sounds like a parody of their past glory. Video footage of 70's Aerosmith is hard to come by. Although the sound and video quality of this promo clip of "Sweet Emotion" are poor, it provides the best example of the energy of classic Aerosmith that I could find.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bobby Fischer

The Hill notes the passing of eccentric chess genius Bobby Fischer, who died Thursday at age 64. Fischer was widely regarded as the greatest American chess player of all time. His victory over the Russian Boris Spassky made him an unlikely hero of the Cold War, and an inspiration to countless numbers of junior high school chess-playing geeks like myself.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago, and raised in Brooklyn. He began learning the game at age 6 when his older sister bought him a chess set. By age 12 he was regularly defeating the elite players of New York's chess clubs. At age 14, he became the youngest player to hold the US title. At 15, he became the youngest to achieve the title of grandmaster to that point. At 16, he dropped out of high school in order to devote all his time to the game of chess.

During the 60's he dominated the game in America with his brilliant tactics and aggressive play. He said of opponents, "I love to see them squirm". During this time, Fischer also developed a reputation for egotism and eccentricity. He made ever-lengthening lists of demands upon tournament sponsors for things like special lighting and seating. He feared flying because he thought the Russians would try to blow up the plane. He told an interviewer that women couldn't be great players. One grandmaster suggested that Fischer see a psychiatrist; Fischer replied that a psychiatrist should have to pay him for the privilege of studying his brain.

By 1972, Fischer had earned the right to play Boris Spassky for the world title. Russians had dominated the chess world for decades, and Fischer's challenge became a focus for American patriotism and anti-Soviet passions. Throughout the match, Fischer drove the chess world crazy with his demands and his quirks. He lost the first game, then forfeited the second because he said he couldn't think due to the prescence of TV cameras (which he had insisted upon at the start of the match). A 2-0 deficit is considered insurmountable in a chess match, but Fischer roared back to claim the title. His victory made him the first, and so far only, American to win the world title, and a national hero.

After winning the title, Fischer seemed reluctant to defend it. He drifted into isolation, and turned down several million-dollar offers to defend his title. In 1975, he was required by International Chess Federation rules to face challenger Anatoly Karpov, but Fischer placed so many demands upon the federation before he would agree to play the match that he was finally stripped of his title.

Fischer spent the remainder of his life in seclusion. For nearly 20 years, he stopped playing chess competitively. He lived off of his previous earnings until it was said that he was broke. Finally, he agreed to a rematch with Spassky for a $5 million purse. He defeated Spassky handily, and never again played tournament chess. The rematch led to trouble with the US government as Fischer violated a ban on doing business with Yugoslavia. Fischer left the United States a fugitive, and never returned. During his later years, Fischer also made increasingly controversial anti-Semitic statements, culminating in remarks made in a Phillipine radio interview after the 9/11 terrorist attack that the US and Jews deserved what had happened. For this, the International Chess Federation stripped Fischer of his membership.

Fischer spent his last days in political asylum in Iceland, a nearly forgotten figure. He was one of the greatest players in chess history, yet in the end wound up consumed by his animosities, his eccentricities, and his paranoia.

For the chess-obsessed, here's a link to many of Bobby Fischer's greatest games.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Album project: The Adams Family

Bryan Adams, Cuts Like A Knife (1983): Bryan Adams was the poor man's Rod Stewart. Adams was struggling to make it as a singer when he met songwriter Jim Vallance in a Vancouver music store. Adams knew he had to improve the quality of his material if he was going to make it big; Vallance was looking for a singer, and he had connections. The partnership would result in some of the biggest hits of the 80's. Cuts Like a Knife gave them their first taste of success.

This album sets up the formula that Adams honed to perfection on later efforts such as Reckless and Waking Up The Neighbours. Always a decent vocalist capable of handling straight-ahead rock and sentimental ballads, on Cuts Like a Knife, Adams and Vallance raise the stakes with improved songwriting. Riff-driven rockers like "Take Me Back" and "This Time" hit the mark, while Adams broadened his appeal with slower cuts like "Straight From The Heart", his first Top 10 single. The LP set the stage for further success with Reckless, on which strong cuts like "Run To You" and "Summer of '69" proved that Adams was here to stay.

The highlight of Cuts Like A Knife by far was the title track, which also gave MTV one of its early video classics:

Jim Vallance on Cuts Like A Knife:

"Cuts Like A Knife" was Bryan Adams' break-through album. The title track continues to be one of his more enduring concert favourites, while the album's first single, "Straight From The Heart", co-written by Bryan and our friend Eric Kagna, is one of the better ballads from Bryan's 25-year recording career (it reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 1983).

"This Time" and "The Best Was Yet To Come" were also well received, but really, Adams and I hadn't yet hit our stride as writers, and the rest of the songs are merely adequate (a year later on "Reckless" we wouldn't have given them a second glance).

Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll (2003): Ryan Adams has become one of the more important rock singer-songwriters of current times. He was probably born 30 years too late; the type of roots-based rock with country and folk overtones that is Adams' trademark would have been tailor-made for 70's FM radio. After cutting his teeth with the country-influenced Whiskeytown, Adams went solo in 2000 and today does his best to keep the classic rock flame alive.

Rock N Roll, as one might expect from the title, is Adams' hardest-rocking effort, showing little of his country leanings and at times almost sounding punkish. Earlier in the year, Adams had gone in to the studio to record the bleak Love Is Hell, but his record company was reluctant to release that effort. Thus Adams went back and recorded the more commercial Rock N Roll. His label would go on to release Love Is Hell the next year.

"Burning Photographs" is the best of the bunch here. Other highlights include "This Is It", "1974", and "Wish You Were Here". The disc works for me as straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, something that has become a bit of a lost art with the younger generation of artists. Many of Adams' fans, though, were disappointed by Rock N Roll, as it is a one-dimensional effort that neglects his versatility as a writer. Adams has released nine albums in seven years as a solo artist, amazingly prolific in this day and age. Easy Tiger, his most recent offering, may be his best yet from what I've heard of it so far.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Does prayer heal?

Many of us have been asked to offer prayers for friends or loved ones in order to help them heal from injury or recover from illness. I know I've said some prayers of that nature over the years. A recent AlterNet article explores the matter of healing prayer.

The article looks at several studies that focused on the effects of medical prayer. The results of the studies are a mixed bag. Much of the information gained from the studies can be subject to interpretation:

A type of statistical merger -- called a "meta-analysis" -- of 15 distant-prayer studies, led by researchers at Syracuse University and published in 2006-07, was unequivocal in concluding that "there is no scientifically discernible effect for distant intercessory prayer on health," regardless of how often or how long patients were prayed for.

In contrast, Dr. David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University, believes he has discerned positive effects of distant prayer on the health of patients. His own 2007 meta-analysis covered 17 papers, most of them in common with those covered in the Syracuse study. He did detect small effects, ones that just scraped past the customarily accepted limit at which they can be considered statistically significant.

That, combined with the fact that six of the 17 papers reported at least some positive effects, led Hodge to suggest that more open-minded medical practitioners might consider using prayer.

Although only small effects have been detected so far (no Bible-caliber tales of patients regaining their sight or rising from the dead in these papers), they're nevertheless important, says Hodge. Whether it's an omnipotent Supreme Being or some as-yet unidentified natural force at work, he maintains, the results can be blurred by experimental noise. As he puts it, "If prayer does produce positive outcomes, it is entirely plausible that the effects, as measured by quantitative methods, would be small when assessed in aggregate."

Whether or not you believe in a Supreme Being, one can concede that there may be a certain psychological advantage that patients have in believing that there is a God that watches over them and is concerned about their health and welfare, and knowing that friends and family are enlisting the power of God to speed the patient's healing process.

One study, though, suggests that prayer may actually have a negative effect:

What is probably the most widely discussed prayer publication to date -- the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) -- also found that prayer may be hazardous to your health. It was conducted by researchers at nine medical institutions, funded by the religious John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., and published in 2006. The study's results, based on 1,800 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery, could hardly have been what the researchers had expected.

Among patients who didn't know whether or not they were receiving prayer, the prayed-for and non-prayed-for groups fared the same, so "blind" prayer had no effect. But a third group of patients who were told that they were certain to receive prayer had significantly worse medical outcomes.

Outside observers attributed the negative effects of prayer in the study to phenomena like emotional stress or performance anxiety and suggested that if prayer indeed behaves like a drug that provides no benefits but has potentially harmful side effects, it should not be administered. But the STEP researchers themselves brushed off the one significant finding of their study, writing, "We have no clear explanation for the observed excess of complications in patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them ... the excess may be a chance finding."

Dr. Bruce Flamm, a critic of belief in healing prayer, lists some reasons why he thinks that reliance on prayer may be detrimental to the health of patients and the medical profession:

It can cause patients to shun effective medical care.

It can lead doctors to diminish their medical efforts.

It can steer insurers to faith-based interventions.

It can promote guilt by suggesting that God is somehow punishing a patient with illness or injury and demands penance as the price of recovery.

It is often linked intimately to prayers for Christian salvation to which a patient might object if informed about it.

My main concern has more to do with the way some see the relationship between science and religion. Too many people rely on religion to do the work of science in explaining physical phenomena, and become disappointed and/or angry at science because it cannot answer the spiritual concerns most of us have. There is plenty of room for science and religion to coexist. If their functions are properly understood, science and religion should compliment one another, rather than be at odds with each other.

Nearly five years ago, my wife almost died from a post-surgical infection she picked up in the hospital and other related complications. She will swear to you that were it not for her faith in God and the prayers of family, friends, and church members, she would not be here today. "I know that prayer works", she said when I showed her the article, "because I'm living proof!" How can I argue with that?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The seven deadly sins

Earlier this week I thought it might be an appropriate time to comment on the Hilobamarama, but I wound up putting it off for the time being. For one, we finally completed the kitchen cabinets project we started on before Christmas. It also seems like lately, every time I start a political post it starts reading like I think that humanity is doomed, and I don't want to go there. At least not yet.

Instead, I'd like all you sinners to see where you stand:

Envy:Very Low

Discover Your Sins - Click Here

As I suspected, I have an anger problem, but I'm too lazy to do anything about it.

Shamelessly stolen from Dharma, one of the Bloggin' Chix at Mixter's Mix.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Album project: The journey begins

AC/DC, For Those About To Rock We Salute You (1981): Back in my Wichita days, I sometimes hung out with a couple of characters named Steve and Tony. Tony was a sometime student at Wichita State, where I first met him. His buddy Steve did little besides drink, fight, fuck, and listen to heavy metal. Steve's favorite group by far was AC/DC.

Whenever I had nothing better to do, I'd go over to their ramshackle house to drink tall Budweisers, get high, and hang out with the assortment of white trash that drifted in and out of the place at all hours. Steve and Tony, however, had a fondness for gin - the cheap stuff, the kind that you could use to take paint off of metal surfaces. I had enough respect for my stomach not to partake of that crap, and usually had the good sense to get the hell out of that place when they broke out the gin. For under the influence of the rotgut, Steve and Tony were transformed into "Bon Scott" and "Jim Morrison", and they would commence a night of brawling and petty thievery that would often end with a trip to the Sedgwick County Jail.

Many times we'd be drinking and listening to music when Steve would launch into a besotted oration on how AC/DC was by far the greatest band of all time. Back then, I didn't think much of the Aussie hard rockers. I'd note that Angus Young could play a lick or two, but Bon Scott's screech of a voice was something I just couldn't get past. If I was potted enough I'd let Steve know my low opinion of the group, which of course only wound him up further and I'd always end up backing down, for I wanted no part of having to contend with that 6'3" veteran of numerous jailhouse scuffles.

Over the years, though, I've come to appreciate AC/DC's talent for no-frills hard rock. Angus Young was equally adept at sledgehammer riffing and fluid, bluesy soloing, while Malcolm Young (Angus' brother), Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd provided rock-solid support. Bon Scott's gutbucket vocals were the perfect compliment to all this, and he also could surprise as a songwriter, with the dark humor of songs like "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and "The Jack". Highway To Hell is a heavy metal masterpiece, a rock 'n' roll assault that doesn't let up on you from beginning to end. After Scott's passing following a night of heavy drinking, the band regrouped with Brian Johnson and released Back In Black, another triumph, with "You Shook Me All Night Long", "Hells Bells", and the title track becoming instant classics. Back In Black has sold 42 million copies worldwide, the biggest selling disc by any Australian artists.

By the time of For Those About To Rock, AC/DC were battle-hardened pros delivering a solid followup to two monster LP's. The title track literally kicks off the album with a cannon blast of metallic glory. "For Those About To Rock" salutes the group's fans, while in "Let's Get It Up" it's Johnson's penis that's standing at attention and ready for action. Tracks like "Evil Walks", "C.O.D.", and "Breaking The Rules" inject a vague sense of menace into the proceedings. Although For Those About To Rock is a decent effort, it does tend to drag in places, and were I to recommend an AC/DC disc today, I'd suggest either Highway To Hell or Back In Black over the title I own.

The last I heard of Steve and Tony, they got caught hotwiring a pickup truck during one of their gin-fueled escapades, which earned them a trip to the state penitentiary. Lord only knows what became of Steve, if he's still living - but I've gotta admit to him that I was wrong about his favorite band.

As a bonus, I'm taking a cue from Beth and throwing in "It's A Long Way To The Top", one of AC/DC's first successes, to start our journey, complete with bagpipes.

Ace, Five-A-Side (1974): Ace was one of the leaders of the "pub rock" sound popular in the UK for a time in the mid-70's. Pub rock was R&B-influenced light rock favored by many of the London-area bar bands of the time. "How Long" was the big hit from this disc, while "Sniffin' About" and "Time Ain't Long" are other notable tracks. Ace would record two more albums before breaking up in 1977. They are best remembered today for launching the career of Paul Carrack, who would go on to considerable success as a vocalist with Squeeze, Mike + The Mechanics, and solo recordings.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Introduction to the album project

Sometime last year I got this crazy idea to blog all of the music in my collection. Crazy, because I have over 1000 titles overall (I haven't counted in a while), and at the glacial pace at which I write, it's a project that will likely stretch over several years. Another matter I was wondering about was whether people would care to read what I had to say on the artists and music, but the interest people have shown in my other music posts has helped to ease that concern.

There are several reasons I've decided to take this project on. One reason is to collect all the thoughts I have about music in one place. There are a lot of discs I have that I haven't listened to in ages, and I've changed opinions on a number of artists over time. Other bloggers have asked me opinions on matters I haven't given much thought to since I was young and brash - like the greatest song of all time, or the top 100 songs. This project will help settle those questions for me, and hopefully you'll find it interesting as well. There are other opinions I've stated over time - such as why Fairport Convention is a great overlooked band, why the Moody Blues are overrated, or why I'd rather be waterboarded than attend a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert - and this project will help you understand how I've come to those opinions.

There are some other reasons for doing this that don't have so much to do with music. As I've stated recently, the world that I grew up in is slowly fading away, and I'd like to recall some of that world with this little piece of cyber-real estate. I hope that this project spurs older readers to recall some of their stories from those times, and helps give younger readers a sense of what coming of age in the 70's and early 80's was all about. From a blogging standpoint, I hope that having something regular to write about establishes a groove for me that will help me to write on more serious subjects. Election time has arrived, and this is a way for me to get into a regular writing habit that will make it easier to take on other subjects. Perhaps this project will also help to build upon the base of readers I have; maybe people will start coming around to see what's next in my collection.

I don't really have any set format in mind apart from going down the line in alphabetical order and writing whatever comes to mind on the album, whether it be stories I know about the artist, personal recollections, great songs, and so forth. I also plan to link video clips whenever appropriate. Some albums and artists I have more to say about than others. Most of the time I plan to do one post per week that will knock down several titles. The artists I have a lot to say about, I plan to go to two or three posts per week to keep the pace from bogging down. Other than that, I have no set rules at this point.

The first post should be up in the next 2-3 days, unless Barack Obama distracts me. It's a long way from AC/DC to ZZ Top, and it promises to be quite a journey.